It was a high school teacher who showed me that history is more than just names, dates, and places. History is the record of the influence of ideas – political, sociological, economic, and religious. Everyone from the capitalist to the communist recognizes the influence of economics. Each election cycle we are all reminded of the power of the political. But the importance of religion in history is often downplayed, or even denied. Failure to appreciate the influence of faith in men and nations leaves unexplained or misunderstood vast portions of the past.
One example of this is the life of Dwight David Eisenhower. He was the Allied Supreme Commander of European Operations in World War II and then America’s 34th president.
Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas, the son of a poor day laborer. His grandfather, Jacob, was a devout Mennonite who passed his faith on to his son, who in turn attempted to instill it in his son. But there was little evidence of religious devotion in young Dwight. He attended West Point, but not because he desired a military career. He simply wanted out of dusty Abilene, and America’s military academies do not charge tuition. While in the army he met and married Mamie, and raised a son. He also had another son die in early childhood. That tragedy coupled with long separations from his wife caused by military duty apparently created a strained marriage. “Ike” was a chain smoker, used salty language, and had a notorious temper.
But during the difficult days of World War II now General Eisenhower began to rediscover his grandfather’s faith. Ike began to pray and study the Bible. Later, he corresponded with a few well-known preachers of the day. Before his inauguration as president in 1953, Eisenhower met several times privately with a Washington D.C. pastor to discuss church membership. A friend recorded, “I believe it was during one of these sessions that Eisenhower made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” Eisenhower remains the only U.S. president to have been baptized while in office. For the rest of his life he was a faithful church member, only rarely missing Sunday services.
Some have suggested an insincere political motivation behind Eisenhower’s personal spiritual renewal. But His public conduct and private life were consistent.
The Eisenhower administration’s accomplishments include: ending the Korean conflict, keeping peace during the tense cold war, authorizing the interstate highway system, initiating the space program, desegregating the army, and signing landmark civil rights legislation.
But there is more to understanding Eisenhower’s influence. His presidency reflected his belief that America’s greatest need was spiritual. He thought that religion was a more effective response to the threat of atheistic communism than military buildup, so he spoke frequently about the importance of faith in American life. He began the practice of opening cabinet meetings with prayer. He helped start the annual National Prayer Breakfast. He supported adding the phrase, “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He signed a law making “In God We Trust” the national motto, and required that it appear on the nation’s currency.
The Eisenhower presidency was not the cause of a spiritual awakening, but it may have been a part of one. From 1940 to 1960 church membership in America climbed dramatically from 49% to 69% of the population. Evidently, the Great Depression followed by World War II and then the growing threat of nuclear war were used by God to stir in Americans a sense of spiritual need. It certainly did in the heart of one man from Abilene.
One more interesting fact: Dwight Eisenhower was named after another famous Dwight that his grandfather and father both highly esteemed – 19th century evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. While not recorded as prominently as it should be, history indicates that Eisenhower shared more than Moody’s name. He shared his faith in Jesus Christ.